Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning play The Whale is laced with references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. But it’s the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End that sums up the playwright’s point: only connect.
Each of the five characters in Hunter’s absorbing play, which is getting an exquisitely acted production at GableStage through mid-August, is a damaged and lonely human being.
Charlie (Gregg Weiner) is a 600-pound, home-bound writing teacher, a grieving gay man whose obesity is actually a deliberate slow suicide. His only friend Liz (Amy Miller Brennan) is also his enabler, a nurse who brings Charlie food and grieves too as she fights a losing battle to keep him alive. Ellie (Arielle Hoffman) is the intensely angry 17-year-old daughter Charlie hasn’t seen since she was 2. Mary (Deborah L. Sherman) is Charlie’s alcoholic ex wife. And Elder Thomas (Karl Skyler Urban) is a Mormon missionary who is as flawed as the others.
Unfolding in short scenes over a five-day period, the play takes its characters from emotional isolation to moments of transformative connection.
The Whale is, undeniably, full of serious content and conflict. Hunter explores issues of family abandonment, the religious tug-of-war between compassion and condemnation, and of course the dicey morality of supplying a self-destructive man with the means to do himself in. But the artistry of all those involved — the playwright, director Joseph Adler, an extraordinarily engaging cast — makes the play’s journey as rich and multidimensional as life itself.
Weiner, encased in a convincing 50-pound fat suit created by costume designer Ellis Tillman, literally anchors the production. His Charlie sits on a sagging sofa at centerstage, barely able to hoist himself up to the walker necessary for a laborious trek to the bathroom. Pleasant, smart, stoic and constantly apologetic, Weiner’s Charlie sports a will of iron under all that corpulence. Hunter’s words and the actor’s multifaceted art forge a powerful emotional connection between the audience and a man who consciously made his world smaller as he grew larger.
Arguably the play’s most unforgettable scene is the one that ends with an intricate emotional pas de deux between Weiner and Sherman. Mary blasts into Charlie’s cluttered, modest apartment, in full furious mom mode, ready for another verbal smack down with her disappointing daughter. When the former couple is finally alone, Mary tames her shaking hands with straight vodka, and the two begin a conversation that is part reminiscence, part reckoning. Sherman’s work is raw and powerful, the scene harrowing and beautiful.
Hoffman and Miller Brennan, good as both have been in other South Florida productions, deliver breakout performances in The Whale.
On the page, Ellie reads as unrelentingly and sometimes unspeakably cruel. But the charismatic Hoffman creates a totally recognizable teen rebel who wears her aggressiveness like emotional armor, protecting a vulnerable heart. Both skilled and gifted, Hoffman is clearly a young actor with a big future.
Known in the region for her award-winning work in musical theater, Miller Brennan infuses Liz with a finely calibrated balance of humor, frustration and anger. Though the relationship between Liz and Charlie is complex and in an obvious way destructive, Miller Brennan and Weiner are completely convincing as old friends with a real affection for each other.
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Urban’s Elder Thomas is, for much of the play, its comic relief, and the actor’s rendition of the character’s blind faith and problematic past work well opposite Hoffman’s manipulative cynicism. But his most powerful scene is his final one with Weiner, as the Mormon boy ardently gives voice to the belief that helped decimate Charlie’s life.
Set designer Lyle Baskin, lighting designer Jeff Quinn, sound designer Matt Corey and costume designer Tillman create the play’s modest world. Then Quinn and Corey summon the sparkle and sound of undulating ocean waves as Weiner reads, then recites what has become Charlie’s emotional life preserver: a middle-school essay by Ellie on Moby Dick.
In the play’s haunting, devastating final image, Charlie and Ellie do as Forster suggested. And the audience is right there with them, experiencing connection and communion.